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Authors: Christopher Priest

Inverted World (6 page)

BOOK: Inverted World
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“So the men will be back in the morning.”

“Probably. And they’ll complain, and they’ll slacken off as soon as you or I turn our backs… but even that’s in the nature of things. Sometimes, though, I wonder.

I waited for him to finish his sentence, but he said nothing more. It was an uncharacteristic sentiment, for Malchuskin did not seem to me to be in any way a pensive man. As we sat together he fell into a long silence, broken only when I got up to go outside to use the latrine. Then he yawned and stretched, and kidded me about my weak bladder.

Rafael returned in the morning with most of the men who had been with us before. A few were missing, though the numbers had been brought up to strength by replacements. Malchuskin greeted them without apparent surprise, and at once began supervising the demolition of the three temporary buildings.

First, all the contents were moved out, and placed in a large pile to one side. Then the buildings themselves were dismantled; not as difficult a task as I’d imagined, as they had evidently been designed to be taken down and put up again easily. Each of the walls was joined to the next by a series of bolts. The floors broke down into a series of flat wooden slats, and the roofs were similarly bolted into place. Fittings such as doors and windows were part of the frames in which they sat. It took only an hour to demolish each cabin, and by midday everything was done. Well before then Malchuskin had gone off by himself, returning half an hour later in a battery-powered truck. We took a short break and ate a meal, then loaded the truck with as much of the material as it would hold and set off towards the ridge, Malchuskin driving. Rafael and a few of the workers clung to the sides of the truck.

It was some way to the ridge. Malchuskin steered a course that brought us diagonally towards the nearest part of the track, and we drove the rest of the way towards the ridge alongside it. There was a shallow dip in the breast of the ridge, and it was through this that the four pairs of rails had been laid. There were many men working on this part of the track: some hacking manually at the ground to each side of the track—presumably to widen it sufficiently to take the bulk of the city as it passed through—and others toiled with mechanical drills, trying to erect five metal frames, each bearing a large wheel. Only one had been so far securely laid, and it stood between the two inner tracks, a gaunt, geometrical design with no apparent function.

As we passed through the dip Malchuskin slowed the truck, looking with interest at how the work was proceeding. He waved to one of the guildsmen supervising the work, then accelerated again as we passed over the summit of the ridge. From here there was a shallow downhill slope towards a broad plain.

To east and west, and on the far side of the plain, I could see hills which were much higher.

To my surprise the tracks ended only a short distance beyond the ridge.

The left outer track had been built for about a mile, but the other three were barely a hundred yards long. There were two teams already at work on these tracks, but it was immediately clear that progress was slow.

Malchuskin stared round. On our side of the tracks—that is, on the western side—there was a small cluster of huts, presumably the living quarters for the track-teams already here. He headed the truck in that direction, but drove some way past before stopping.

“This’ll do,” he said. “We want the buildings up by nightfall.”

I said: “Why don’t we put them up by the others?”

“It’s my policy not to. I have trouble enough with these men as it is.

If they have too much contact with the others they drink more and work less.

We can’t stop them mixing together when they’re not working, but there’s no point in clustering them together.”

“But surely they have a right to do what they want?”

“They’re being bought for their labour. That’s all.”

He clambered down from the cabin of the truck, and began to shout at Rafael to start the work on the huts.

The truck was soon unloaded, and leaving me in charge of the re-building, Malchuskin drove the truck back over the ridge to collect the rest of the men and the materials.

As nightfall approached, the re-building was nearly completed. My last task of the day was to return the truck to the city and connect it to one of the battery-recharging points. I drove off, content to be alone again for a while.

As I drove over the ridge, the work on the raised wheels had finished for the day and the site was abandoned but for two militiamen standing guard, their crossbows slung over their shoulders. They paid no attention to me.

Leaving them behind, I drove down the other side towards the city. I was surprised to see how few lights were showing and how, with the approach of night, the daytime activities ceased.

Where Malchuskin had told me I would find recharging points I discovered that other vehicles were already connected up, and no other places were available. I guessed that this was the last truck to be returned that evening, and that I would have to look around for more points. In the end, I found a spare point on the south side of the city.

It was now dark, and after I had attended to the truck I was faced with the long walk back alone. I was tempted not to return, but to stay the night inside the city. After all, it would take only a few minutes to get back to my cabin in the crèche … but then I thought of Malchuskin and the reaction I would get from him in the morning.

Reluctantly, I walked around the perimeter of the city, found the tracks leading northwards and followed them up to the ridge. Being alone on the plain at night was a rather disconcerting experience. It was already cold and a strong breeze was blowing from the east, chilling me through my thin uniform.

Ahead of me I could see the dark bulk of the ridge, set against the dull radiance of the clouded sky. In the dip, the angular shapes of the wheel structures stood on the skyline, and pacing to and fro in their lonely vigil were the two militiamen. As I walked up to them I was challenged.

“Stop right there!” Both men had come to a halt, and although I could not see for certain I had an instinct that the crossbows were pointing in my direction. “Identify yourself.”

“Apprentice Helward Mann.”

“What are you doing outside the city?”

“I’m working with Track Malchuskin. I passed you just now in the truck.”

“Oh yes. Come forward.”

I walked up to them.

“I don’t know you,” one of them said. “Have you just started?”

“Yes … about a mile ago.”

“Which guild are you in?”

“The Futures.”

The one who had spoken laughed. “Rather you than me.”

“Why?”

“I like a long life.”

“He’s young though,” the other said.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“Been up future yet?”

“No.”

“Been down past yet?”

“No. I only started a few days ago.”

A thought occurred to me. Although I could not see their faces in the dark I could tell by the sound of their voices that they were not much older than me. Perhaps seven hundred miles, not much more. But if that was so, then surely I should know them for they would have been in the crèche with me?

“What’s your name?” I said to one of them.

“Conwell Sturner. Crossbowman Sturner to you.”

“Were you in the crèche?”

“Yes. Don’t remember you, though. But then you’re just a kid.”

“I’ve just left the crèche. You weren’t there.”

They both laughed again, and I felt my temper weakening. “We’ve been down past, son.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means we’re men.”

“You ought to be in bed, son. It’s dangerous out here at night.”

“There’s no one around,” I said.

“Not now. But while the softies in the city get their sleep, we save ‘em from the tooks.”

“What are they?”

“The tooks? The dagos. The local thugs who jump out of shadows on young apprentices.”

I moved past them. I wished I’d gone into the city and hadn’t come this way. Nevertheless my curiosity was aroused.

“Really … what do you mean?” I said.

“There’s tooks out there who don’t like the city. If we didn’t watch them, they’d damage the track. See these pulleys? They’d have them down if we weren’t here.”

“But it was the … tooks who helped put them up.”

“Those as work for us. But there’s a lot as doesn’t.”

“Get to bed, son. Leave the tooks to us.”

“Just the two of you?”

“Aye … just us, and a dozen more all over the ridge. You hurry on down to bed, son, and watch you don’t get a quarrel between the eyes.”

I turned my back on them and walked away. I was seething with anger, and had I stayed a moment longer I felt sure I would have gone for one or the other of them. I hated their manly patronization of me, and yet I knew I had needled them. Two young men armed with crossbows would be no defence against a determined attack, and they knew it too, but it was important for their self-esteem not to let me work it out for myself.

When I judged I was out of their earshot I broke into a run, and almost at once stumbled over a sleeper. I moved away from the track and ran on.

Malchuskin was waiting in the hut, and together we ate another meal of the synthetic food.

 

 

6

After two more days’ work with Malchuskin the time came for my period of leave. In those two days Malchuskin spurred the labourers on to more work than I had ever seen them do, and we made good progress. Although track-laying was harder work than digging up old track, there was the subtle benefit of seeing the results, in the shape of an ever-extending section of track. The extra work took the form of having to dig the foundationpits for the concrete blocks before actually laying the sleepers and rail. As there were now three track-crews working to the north of the city, and each of the tracks was approximately the same length, there was the additional stimulus of competition amongst the crews. I was surprised to see how the men responded to this competition, and as the work proceeded there was a certain amount of good-natured banter among them as they toiled.

“Two days,” Malchuskin said, just before I left for the city. “Don’t take any longer. They’ll be winching soon, and we need every man available.”

“Am I to come back to you?”

“It’s up to your guild … but yes. The next two miles will be with me. After that you transfer to another guild, and do three miles with them.”

“Who will it be?” I said.

“I don’t know. Your guild will decide that.”

“O.K.”

As we finished work late on the last night I slept in the hut. There was another reason too: I had no wish to walk back to the city after dark and pass through the gap guarded by the militiamen. During the day there was little or no sign of the Militia, but after my first experience of them Malchuskin had told me that a guard was mounted every night, and during the period immediately prior to a winching operation the track was the most heavily guarded area.

The next morning I walked back along the track to the city.

It was not difficult to locate Victoria now that I was authorized to be in the city. Before, I had been hesitant in looking for her, for at the back of my mind there had been the thought that I should have been getting back to Malchuskin as soon as I could. Now I had two whole days of leave, and was relieved of the sense of evading what my duties should have been.

Even so, I still had no way of knowing how to find her… and so had to resort to the expedient of asking. After a few misroutings I was directed to a room on the fourth level. Here, Victoria and several other young people were working under the supervision of one of the women administrators. As soon as Victoria saw me standing at the door she spoke to the administrator, then came over to me. We went out into the corridor.

“Hello, Helward,” she said, shutting the door behind her.

“Hello. Look … if you’re working I can see you later.”

“It’s all right. You’re on leave, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’m on leave too. Come on.”

She led the way down the corridor, turned off into a side passage, and then went down a short flight of steps. At the bottom was another corridor, lined on both sides by doors. She opened one of them and we went inside.

The room beyond was much larger than any private room I had so far seen inside the city. The largest single piece of furniture was a bed placed against one of the walls, but the room was also well and comfortably furnished with a quite surprising amount of floor space. Against one wall was a wash-basin and a small cooker. There was a table and two chairs, a cupboard to keep clothes in, and two easy chairs. Most unexpected of all, there was a window.

I went over to it immediately and looked out. There was an area of open space beyond, bounded on the opposite side by another wall with many windows.

The space extended to left and right, but the window was small and I could not see what lay at the sides of the space.

“Like it?” Victoria said.

“It’s so large! Is it all yours?”

“In a sense. Ours, once we’re married.”

“Oh yes. Someone said I’d have quarters to myself.”

“This is probably what they meant,” said Victoria. “Where are you living at the moment?”

“I’m still in the crèche. But I haven’t stayed there since the ceremony.”

“Are you outside already?”

“I …”

I wasn’t sure what to say.
Outside
? What could I tell Victoria, bound as I was to the oath?

“I know you go outside the city,” said Victoria. “It’s not such a secret.”

“What else do you know?”

“Several things. But look, I’ve hardly spoken to you! Can I make you some tea?”

“Synthetic?” I immediately regretted the question; I did not wish to seem ungracious.

“I’m afraid so. But I’m going to be working with the synthetics team soon, so I might be able to find some way of improving it.”

The atmosphere relaxed slowly. For the first hour or two we addressed each other coolly and almost formally, politely curious about one another, but soon we were able to take more things for granted; Victoria and I were not such strangers, I realized.

BOOK: Inverted World
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